Adrian Levy is a journalist and filmmaker who currently writes for The Guardian.
Specialising in long-form investigative work, his pieces most often filed from Asia are published in The Guardian's Weekend magazine. Levy's work has also appeared in The Observer, The Sunday Times magazine, as well as being syndicated in the US, Australasia and across Europe.
Levy has also written non-fiction books.
The Siege, based around the attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, was published by Penguin in November 2013. Levy has also co-produced documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4, as well as broadcasting on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service.
Much of his work has been a collaboration with the journalist and author Cathy Scott-Clark
What keeps you pushing forward to write investigative books? Are you not scared by the threats or the adversaries you might face?
Adrian: Researching and writing are a way of winning a continuous education - without paying! Every new subject and new contact, every contributor, provides access to something new: a situation, a kind of politics, a way of life - ideas. Relationships. These are the reasons to keep on struggling. And in this context, the threats and the struggle of research and writing, the lack of funding, and the never ending waiting, pale into insignificance.
How do you filter out the tons of information that you get while researching your book? Also, how do you sort out facts from fiction?
Adrian: Let’s deal with the first part. Organising interviews and data is crucial. Timelines - a chronology - is the first way to do this. Transcriptions of interviews and feeding them into the timeline is a second. And then creating a structure out of the timeline and interviews is the ultimate goal. Every time we go over them, we refine them, and from each contributor we look for external empirical ways of fixing the timeline. These can be their mobile phone messages, SMS, WhatsApp, photos, etc - all social media and smart phone memories come with meta data. Time stamps and date stamps. But also we use data laws, to recover information from governments and businesses - which we use also to bulk out timelines - and expand character lists.
Everything starts super simple - and gradually comes to resemble the plot of a Russian novel!
Facts and fiction - all you can do is find consensus. We look for multiple sources for every single event. Who was in the room? Who was in the kitchen? Who saw what when. We cross compare, and try to access external views of the same events, challenging ideas, interrogating timelines. This is the only way to make sure that the picture you are drawing is accurate.
This maybe a question you might have been asked many a times... "How do you go by conducting interviews and what fascinates you the most while gathering information?"
Adrian: Interviews are not interviews. They are invitations to listen - hopefully over time. And each time, more context and information could/might emerge as our relationship deepens. Everyone has a different way. But nearly all of our ‘interviews’ are with people we have grown to know or recommend us to others, over many years. And those that are new - have a reason to talk. Finding out what that might be is of course key.
But one thing is generally true - everyone wants to talk, and so starting with this belief, and that no most often means maybe…provides impetus to everything we do.
Do you believe that the Intelligence Agency of India has improved under the Modi Government post 26/11?
Adrian: I think no intel or policing agency could have dealt with 26/11 - it was a complex, brutal assault on a mega city. However, we also know that the failings in Mumbai where multiple - intelligence was there warning of attacks to come, identifying targets, and yet security was diminished in key locations.
Why? Intelligence agencies failed to brief widely on the available intelligence, and stove piped what they had. Why? The post mortem then was perfunctory - so these questions were never satisfactorily answered. Pradhan (the report) was a disaster. 68 pages! Look at the post mortem for 7/7 and 9/11 - hundreds of thousands of public pages archived for everyone to read, as the key belief of government in UK and US was the only way to thwart terror from within is by enlisting communities. But in India this is not the case.
Instead, intel and police in India are over reliant on technical methods, intercepts etc, rather than depending human methods. The criminal justice system has not been strengthened - courts, judiciary and prisons. All of these services are not self reflexive. And intel in particular has not been professionalized - or upgraded.
Many proposals have been put forward by policing bodies and intel bodies themselves - and politicians have thwarted all of them. The reasons for this are complex. But one - is that politicians benefit from the lack of oversight in intel and policing. And professionalized services with oversight would no longer be the tool of politicians to use against competitors!
In your interview with the "Daily News & Analysis" dated on the 29th of May, 2017 - you have mentioned about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — the architect of 9/11 — and his meetings with Hafiz Saeed. Despite Saeed's known links with terrorists, why has Pakistan never put him behind bars or file a case against him?
Adrian: There are many reasons. LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba) is truly and army within an army, a state within a state, and the actual state might not be powerful enough to take on LeT without paying in blood and engendering massive instability. But that aside - there is also still indecision inside the country about the value of jihad fronts, and the deep state and politicians are still semi reliant on them.
LeT. JeM (Jaish-e-Mohammed) and LeJ (Lashkar-e-Jhangvi) are far more disciplined than government institutions and have access to more funding than state institutions , and are often far more elastic in their thinking. This makes the jihad fronts (politically unconscionable) but practically ‘desirable' as agents to repress internally, and attack externally. How will Pakistan move away from the path of self destruction? A profound change in its notions of security, a self belief - and perhaps new allies, including China.
Pakistan also needs to be push further away from Saudi Arabia that has not done the Republic much good, apart from acting as a shelter for exiled military leaders and politicians.
Finally, the entropic system, with the military in competition with the political realm, that is still largely dynastic and incapable of honest, profound change - makes things likely to fail and fail again.
The impending elections present a challenge. If Sharif, rejected by the military intel establishment, wins - what will happen? And how important will be the destabilising relationship between Imran Khan and ISI etc? Added to this witches brew is US pressure - which is driving Pakistan away and to other allegiances - which might, actually, be best for the Republic and for the region. The US’s destabilising unwindable war in Afghanistan has not done much for Pakistan - or for India. And certainly nothing for Afghanistan.
Understanding Pakistan’s needs in Afghanistan and how they might tally with the new regional world order - with Iran in the ascendant, will be vital.
If we get to the core of these issues - then the internal jihad factory night be addressed.
In the same Interview, you have also mentioned that ISI ''contained a large collection of hugely valuable letters and documents from Osama bin Laden" which was never ever disclosed to the Pakistani government. So does this mean that ISI sponsors terrorism?
Adrian: Many intelligence agencies foment terror. CIA, MI6, RAW - become untangled in foreign adventures acting as agent provocateurs and triggers for coups etc. ISI is fulfilling the national interests of Pakistan, sometimes, and on other occasions, is outside of the establishment, if not unaccountable. Is ISI any different from RAW? Well, arguably, ISI has been more effective, but both organisations have similar histories, and structures. And not that dissimilar goals - although RAW argues this differently.
In terms of present conflicts, ISI has become enmeshed on many different fronts - the Gulf, Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, China, and India. And it’s Kashmir strategy continues to take advantage of massive internal dissent and discontent in Kashmir. But India’s refusal to ameliorate conditions in Kashmir has made this possible -the callous use of pellet guns, the continuing abeyance of law and order, the passes given to military that prevent them from being prosecuted, and the laws including PSA, that see Kashmiris arrested for thought crimes, have created a far greater crisis.
Has ISI shielded terrorists and criminals - yes. Has RAW fomented terror in Baluchistan, yes, and IB and Raw have done the same inside India, sponsoring Ikhwan renegade groups, death squads effectively, in Kashmir and Punjab, as well as fomenting Saffron violence elsewhere in false flag operations. This last point would make for a great book.
Is Pakistani ally of the United States? Will Donald Trump's move to withhold it's financially aid have global consequences? Are the aids received by Pakistan used to fund terror networks which Trump claims?
Adrian: Pakistan is serving its own national interests and not those of the US - currently. And - arguably - why should it be a vassal state of the US, as Washington demands. This is the most important thing to remember. Pakistan is looking for security in Afghanistan and its composite picture is not the same as the US one.
Perhaps the worst thing about this disconnect is that all Pak sees is the price it has paid for supporting US policy, and all the US, narrow mindedly sees, is how Pakistan fails to deliver everything.
The best way to support Pakistan would be to support its civilian structures and persuade two nations into dialogue over Kashmir and a wealth of other issues. But his Trump admin is not going to do that.
In your interviews with the Business Standard, you have mentioned that it costed just around $40,000 to run the 26/11 terror attacks. How did you get hold of this financial information? What sort of transaction systems did the terrorists and their handlers used to fund the operation?
Adrian: The operation was costed by US / UK intelligence - and the figure presents a dilemma, as terror now is mostly lo fi and cheap to run. However, terror fronts and insurgencies co opt criminal networks in order to use their transportation and logistic networks. Look at the way in which Dawood moved from being a Bombay smugglers into a global enabler.
‘Terror' does not require global masterminds, sitting on fortunes, to wreak havoc. It requires a creed, in the case of IS, a death cult, and the Internet, although having said that IS, which wanted to be a State, wielded massive assets, while its followers who enacted terrorist crimes, did so with only paltry funds.
This was the IS model, while Al Qaeda required more funding, as a centralised network, which it remains.
What will come next - with IS sublimating into insurgencies in Libya and elsewhere, while Al Qaeda seems to be resurgent, we dont know.
You have interacted with Osama's family. How are they doing post his death? Has the family gone off radar with Al-Qaeda?
Adrian: It’s important to emphasise that women were married into conflict and children born to it, who had no say. They did not choose. And now the family is largely stateless, semi imprisoned in Qatar and Saudi - many without passports, or work. The price they have paid is remarkable severe - given their roles. Most were not even accomplices. They were the bi-products of the ever growing caravan of Osama.
Hamza bin Laden has risen, or been manipulated, into being a new figure head for Al Qaeda, but interestingly the rest of the family looks on in horror, fearing for him, and his children - his oldest son Osama died mysteriously last year.
But there is another point here - in getting to know Al Qaeda, and Osama’s family, we tried to get inside a movement that was mostly mis described, or solely described by the agencies that chased it. The information in the public domain was wildly inaccurate and lacked personal and psychological depth.
Historians and journalists have done this with most work movements, but not with the epoch of terror. This was our goal. Marrying the domestic micro picture with the macro - so that we could understand the figures involved and their motivations - which included jealousy, pride, delusion and real wrongs, as they saw it, that needed to be righted.
At the Hindu Lit for Life, you have told that the movie "Zero Dark Thirty" is entirely fictitious despite it's claim on being "a true story". Why do you think so?
Adrian: Hollywood is a wonderful and powerful tool for expressing US self interest. Its vision. That particular film served the Obama administration well, helping it electorally, by emphasising the struggle and victory over Osama - at any cost. Unfortunately, it also suggested that torture worked and cracked the ‘case’ - leading to the uncovering of the Abbottabad compound, where Osama was run to ground in May 2011. This was absolutely untrue.
Torture failed to elicit good actionable intelligence, and sent the agencies down costly time consuming wormholes - as well as being morally repugnant and illegal.
Traditional spade work by analysts and FBI agents, as well as a strange coupling of Iranian intelligence and CIA, led the US to Abbottabad - and none of the information was derived from torture.
Books by Adrian Levy are available on Amazon
While gathering information for your books from perhaps the government of India or Pakistan or the US , did you ever face restrictions or denial of data? If so, what kind of crucial information did they hide?
Adrian: There’s wonderful open source data freely available everywhere - and then there are people to find to expand and interpret it. The challenge in every country is finding the right people and understanding their motivation to talk. In India, in recent years, this task has become increasingly challenging - as censorship, and wild use of criminal defamation, as well as, for foreigners, the threat of revocation of visas, has made investigating anything haphazard. India’s once remarkable openness, as a society, is right now being challenged - making the sub continent far harder and far more restrictive to work in.
You have been working as an investigative journalist for many years , researching a lot about terror networks and Jihadists... Haven't this affected you perhaps psychologically?
Adrian: We are optimists - who spend time with people and not ‘isms', or ‘ists’, even if by day these people are fighters, politicians and insurgents, perhaps terrorists. Deriving stories, data and developing relationships requires trust, tact and patience - and is nearly always rewarding as we;; as being frustrating.
Being allowed in to something - someone’s home, to sit and eat with them, share a glass of tea, are still, nearly always, rewarding experiences. And we live for these moments.
To investigative journalist who are working on their book, can you share them some vital tips you have learnt so far?
Adrian: Planning is more important than anything else. Planning research. Planning inquiries based on your research. Planning interviews based on research and in inquiries. Deboning these interviews to create timelines - which you constantly update with new information from new sources. Building pyramids - inverted, which started with a single source, and then build into many sources.
Being prepared to rip up a view or a scene, because while it might be dramatic, it also is plainly irrelevant or wrong.
Listening. More than talking. Reading, as well as writing. And contextualising materials given to you by ‘authorities - especially intelligence and police - and not using these are version of the truth, only as partial accounts to be checked and challenged.
Remembering that ‘no’ means ‘maybe’.
Trying not to make ‘money’ the central motivation for doing any of this - because it is hard to fund and slow to pay.
Can you tell us about your favourite Non Fiction book? Also, about your favourite investigative journalist or a writer you admire?
Adrian: There are so many. Dawn Watch was one of my favourites from last year - Maya Jansanoff’s deep dive into the world of Joseph Conrad was travelogue, memoir, and autobiography - as well as a history. It cannily used many different skills, and reading it is to see a slick mind working, matched to a great writerly style. A must read.
News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel García Márquez its with us always - as it shows how novelistic devices can be used in great inquiries. never short of thrilling drama, it is also exacting and spares no one.
Steve Coll’s "Ghost Wars" was a groundbreaking book for us too - in putting the context into a decade that founded the epochs to come. It was a fete of research and reportage.
However, our interests lie on the other side - with the insurgents, the foreign intel agencies, and the so called terrorists, rather than with CIA, US Special Forces or FBI etc.
Among many writers/reporters, I admire Yosri Fouda, the Egyptian investigative journalist and broadcaster, for his remarkable ground breaking work on Al Qaeda that is so much better than anything written in the West.
I was in awe of the fearlessness and precision of Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya, murdered in 2006 in Russia.
I still love the idea of Kapuscinski - the Polish reporter and writer, who was the last to the battle front and to the revolution, as his country has no cash to compete with CNN and pay for airfares, taking the bus instead. Even if some of his reporting might well be fictionalised, and there are questions about his proximity to intelligence agencies, he created a superb body of work that is enthralling to read - still.